A mentor to so many, Michelle Obama also inspired a visionary team of Grade 9 students, who ultimately placed fifth out of 10 finalists in a virtual high-school incubator competition.
Mani, Thea, Leah and Anna dreamed up the idea of introducing “regenerative farming techniques'' into the Toronto District School Board, so all students can enjoy a small-scale garden that favours “cover crops” rather than bare soil, insects such as ladybugs instead of pesticides, and biodiversity rather than monoculture. Their design would also feature much composting, although not with the mineral-rich crab meal from Chesapeake Bay that the White House Garden procures. An inspiration to many would-be farmers, it was planted by the former First Lady in 2009 with more than 55 vegetable varieties for guest and family meals.
The idea was all part of an eight-week virtual start-up incubator for high-school school entrepreneurs at the World Affairs Conference (WAC) Inaugural Sprint Competition, an off-shoot of WAC, the annual event co-hosted by Branksome and Upper Canada College.
For the final assignment, the Grade 9 students pitched to a panel of educators and industry professionals chaired by Michele Romanow, a technology entrepreneur who has been featured on Dragon’s Den. After initially competing for one of 50 spots, all students in the incubator worked with Toronto-based Future Design School.
The team initially researched organic farms in Ontario and came away inspired.
“After speaking with family friends, [the New Farm near Creemore] about why they use regenerative farming techniques, I wondered, 'If this is such a simple and effective climate solution, why isn't everyone doing it?'” says Manuela (Mani). “These techniques sequester carbon, increase farmers’ annual profits and provide better quality produce. They have been proven to vastly curb climate change and our team was confused why we’d never heard about them before.”
The team’s proposal featured tactics such as farmer-led workshops, field trips and hands-on learning with the aid of small-scale farming patches and greenhouses on school campuses. They’re part of a growing movement. Indeed, the federal government believes in regenerative farming, recently allocating $200 million over two years to launch immediate farm action under the Agricultural Climate Solutions program, one of the initiatives that the team researched as part of the design process, explains Mani.
Anna describes how the inspiration to think big came from learning about Michelle Obama’s White House Gardening Project. And Leah learned big lessons about how entrepreneurship both requires and teaches resilience, problem-solving, collaboration and many other skills that can be brought forward into other aspects of life.
“Through this competition, I learned the importance of innovation, and how even the smallest ideas can make the biggest difference,” says Thea. “Watching all the other company pitches at the end was super-cool because they all had such great ideas. It made me realize that you don't have to be big and powerful to make a difference; you can literally do it from behind your laptop screen.”